Learning Yup’ik on the go: a new language app for Bristol Bay

Diane Wetter (L) and Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder try out Yugtun, a language app for Yup’ik learners. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder and Diane Wetter are trying out a new way to learn Yup’ik during a conference at the Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham.

All right! So we’re looking at the Yugtun app. Lesson three: foods. So we’re going to learn,” Ilutsik-Snyder said.    

The Yugtun language app has games and lessons, accompanied by pictures of local people acting out words and phrases. It was put together by Arnaq Esther Ilutsik, the director of Yup’ik studies for the Southwest Region School District. (She’s also Atkiq’s mother.) Ilutsik’s department has spent years building a curriculum to strengthen oral language skills.

“It was something that the district – my district – had recommended, that we revitalize the Yup’ik language,” she said. “And we’ve been putting curriculum together to revitalize our language, having a strong oral Yup’ik language base. But we needed something else to help the student and community members,”

Related: Kotzebue brothers make first app for all 20 Alaska Native languages

The hope is to reach students and other potential speakers through technology. Ilutsik began to develop the app in 2016. To do so, she gathered a committee of community members, elders and instructors from villages around the region.

But she struggled to find funding. Only the village of Twin Hills submitted a small grant. Then, the group received funds from the Rasmuson Foundation and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus. Sarah Andrew is the campus director. She’s taken Yup’ik lessons in the past and is part of a program for language revitalization at the Bristol Bay Campus. When she heard about the app she decided to use their funds from the Department of Education to help develop it.

“I really wanted personally to learn more, and as my children grew, I wanted them to learn more,” said Andrew. “Because even within our family we have Yup’ik-fluent speakers, but there isn’t the opportunity, necessarily, for that to get passed on to the next generation.”

Along with 45 lessons and features that focus on basic vocabulary and grammar, the app has cultural lessons and historical photos of people from the area. It also includes a Yup’ik dance video and rhymes, like pitegcurliq. 

“OK, the chant is, in the springtime – and I used to always sing this as a little girl, and I don’t even remember how I learned it,” Ilutsik said. “But in the springtime you’d see the robins come, and you always sang this to the robins. So that was one of my favorite memories, to sing to the robin.”

Pronunciation of the same word can vary, even from village to village. So when Ilutsik and her team developed the app, they made sure to include different pronunciations, using local voices from New Stuyahok, Manokotak, Togiak and Aleknagik.

Back at the campus, Ilutsik-Snyder and Wetter are learning those subtle differences. 

“[Egamarrluut] is also another way to say it. A different dialect, I think, is egamarrluut,” Ilutsik-Snyder explained, saying one of the words for half-dried fish.

Ilutsik-Snyder said the app is so useful because it’s geared toward all levels.

“What I really like about the quiz portion of it, is there’s a section where you can record your own voice saying the word, and then you can compare it to them saying the word, so you can hear maybe how yours differs and what you need to work on,” she explained.

Arnaq Ilutsik cautioned that the app is only supplementary – while it provides an introduction to Yup’ik, she said that nothing can replace good, old-fashioned classes. Still, the games on the app can help solidify language lessons. And it’s part of building a bridge to past generations and encouraging people to explore their history, as well.

“We have this void within the culture of our people,” Ilutsik said. “It’s a couple of generations. It comes from the flu epidemic, and where the children of those people that passed away weren’t able to pass on the information.”

Ilutsik hopes that by making practice more accessible, people will be encouraged to start speaking outside the classroom.

The Yugtun app was released in August. Now, instructors and students can download it on iPhones and iPads.

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